North Korea has responded to worldwide condemnation of its latest nuclear test by saying it was a “first response” to US threats and warned of unspecified “second and third measures of greater intensity”.
The United States and others called the test a violation of UN resolutions. Even North Korea’s only major ally, China, voiced opposition. But the North’s Foreign Ministry said the test was a “self-defensive measure” that does not violate any international law.
The underground nuclear test in the remote, snowy north-east could be a crucial step toward the North’s goal of building a bomb small enough to be fitted on a missile capable of striking the United States.
President Barack Obama, who was scheduled to give a State of the Union address, said nuclear test efforts “do not make North Korea more secure.” Instead, North Korea has “increasingly isolated and impoverished its people through its ill-advised pursuit of weapons of mass destruction,” he said.
The test was a defiant response to UN orders that North Korea shut down its atomic activities or face more sanctions and international isolation, as well as a direct message from young leader Kim Jong Un to the United States, the North’s No. 1 enemy since the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korea was punished by more UN sanctions after a December launch of a rocket that the UN and Washington called a cover for a banned missile test. The North said it was a peaceful, and successful, bid to send a satellite into space.
The timing is significant. The test in an underground tunnel came hours before Mr Obama’s speech and only days before the Saturday birthday of Kim Jong Un’s father, late leader Kim Jong Il, whose memory North Korean propaganda has repeatedly linked to the country’s nuclear ambitions.
This year also marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, and in late February South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye will be inaugurated.
Pyongyang claimed the device was smaller than in previous tests; Seoul said it produced a bigger explosion.
Several UN resolutions bar North Korea from conducting nuclear or missile tests because the UN Security Council considers Pyongyang would-be proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and its nuclear testing a threat to international peace and stability. North Korea dismisses that as double standards, and claims the right to build nuclear weapons as a defence against the United States.
The test will probably be portrayed in North Korea as a strong move to defend the nation against foreign aggression, particularly from the US
“The test was conducted in a safe and perfect way on a high level, with the use of a smaller and light A-bomb, unlike the previous ones, yet with great explosive power,” North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said.
It said the test was aimed at coping with “the ferocious hostile act of the US” – a reference to what Pyongyang calls Washington’s attempts to block its right to send satellites into space.
North Korea is estimated to have enough weaponised plutonium for four to eight bombs.
The test will probably draw more sanctions from the United States and other countries at a time when North Korea is trying to rebuild its moribund economy and expand its engagement with the outside world.
North Korea cites what it calls a US military threat in the region as a key reason behind its drive to build nuclear weapons. The two countries fought on opposite sides of the Korean War, which ended after three years with an armistice signed on July 27, 1953, not a peace treaty. The US stations more than 28,000 troops in South Korea to protect the ally.
The other part of a credible North Korean nuclear deterrent is its missile programme. While it has capable short and medium range missiles, it has struggled in tests of technology for long-range missiles needed to carry bombs to the United States.